Russian ‘Imperial Syndrome’ Doesn’t Explain Everything Moscow Does – OpEd


No one can deny that Russia has an imperial past and some characteristics of an empire to this day, Ivan Kurilla says; but it is a dangerous misconception to think that everything Russia does is only the product of this “imperial syndrome.” In fact, Russia like other countries is driven by a variety of motives not just imperialism.

The St. Petersburg scholar points out that “there is an imperial inheritance and an imperial attitude toward former colonies” and that it would be a mistake to ignore that part of reality. But it is not the whole story; and thinking otherwise gets in the way of understanding (

Instead, everyone must recognize that “not everything that Russians do, say or write is dictated even at the unconscious level by an imperial syndrome.” Like everyone else, Russians are driven by a variety of interests, concerns, and values; and those need to be considered as well when explanations of their behavior are sought., you will se

“There are personal and family ties; there are business interests; there is attachment to some theoretical model” or ideology, Kurilla says. All of this can be viewed as part of “an imperial syndrome” if one considers it only from the outside. After all, “if you are a hammer, then everything is a nail.”

That is, “if you have a vision of ‘imperial Russia’ I your head, then you will see everything Russians do as a manifestation of this imperial syndrome.”

According to Kurilla, this dangerous temptation “often happens” in the case of students who read one book or article and are so impressed that they soon view everything through the lens provided and assume that it “explains everything.” That is what is happening in the case of much public discussion in the West about Russia.

The limitations and dangers of such an approach need to be recognized, he continues, as does another reality. Everyone “must understand that Russia’s anti-war and anti-Putin people do not view the future of Russia the same way as do anti-war and anti-Putin elites in the West” because for all Russians, “the fate of Russia is important.”

They would like to see Russia united and prosperous; but not surprisingly, “a prosperous Russia is understandably viewed by some of its neighbors as a threat.” In the future, Russians will face the task of “convincing their neighbors not just in words but in actions that such a Russia is not a threat to them.”

That will require that they face up to the imperial elements in their past and in their thinking, recognize how threatening those appear to others, and take steps to reject them in word and deed.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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